Jonathan Safran Foer’s faux-memoir Everything Is Illuminated was a polarizing piece of metafictional gimmickry, a novel equal parts humorous (when recounting semi-fictional protagonist Foer’s trip to the Ukraine to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust) and horrendous (when indulging in Jonathan’s novel-within-the-novel about the magic-realism tomfoolery in a 1790s Ukrainian shtetl). For his directorial debut, actor Liev Schreiber attempts to streamline Foer’s tome into more mainstream-accessible form, focusing his story on Jonathan’s (Elijah Wood) odyssey through the Ukraine with a hip-hop-obsessed, broken English-spewing guide named Alex (Eugene Hutz), Alex’s crotchety grandfather also named Alex (Boris Leskin), and grandpa’s “seeing eye bitch” Sammy Davis Jr. Jr.
Foer’s book was tiresomely infatuated with twisting English linguistics in Alex’s mouth, and Schreiber dutifully reproduces the Westernized Ukrainian’s penchant for saying “premium” instead of “good,” “repose” instead of “sleep,” and “negroes” instead of “African-Americans,” all without getting a lot of mileage from such lost-in-translation jokes. More adept is the first-time director’s staging and cutting of comedic scenes, a proficiency seen in moments such as a shot of Alex goofily running alongside Jonathan’s incoming train with a greeting sign that amusingly pans to reveal an entire marching band sprinting behind Alex. But though Leskin—dressed like LL Cool J circa 1987—has the messy, rubbery swagger of a cartoon caricature, most of Everything Is Illuminated seems to have been dipped in a vat of second-hand Wes Anderson affectation, from Jonathan’s cleanly pressed black-and-white suit and matching fifth-grader haircut, to fetishistically arranged images like one of Jonathan’s bedroom wall decorated with artifacts from his deceased family members’ lives, to Schreiber’s fondness for studied head-on close-ups of his slightly surreal characters’ countenances.
Without the sublime peculiarity of Anderson’s idiosyncratic preoccupations, however, the film, straining for quirkiness, only has Holocaust-tinged melodrama to fall back on, a problem compounded by the fact that Wood’s mostly silent performance is largely overwhelmed by his thick-rimmed glasses. And though Schreiber faithfully links Jonathan’s habit of hoarding trinkets in Ziplock bags (he’s known as “The Collector”) with the process of remembering, preserving and thus honoring history—a melding of past and present that’s also felt in the filmmaker’s portrait of the Ukraine as a place where McDonald’s and historical buildings exist side-by-side—his overly manicured film ultimately suffers from vacuum-sealed preciousness.